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Markley, The Far East and the English Imagination, 2006.

David Davies reviews the book for H-Albion, 2007.
January 1, 2006

Published by (July, 2007)

Robert Markley. The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii + 316 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-81944-2.

Reviewed for H-Albion by David Davies, Independent Scholar

East Is East

Robert Markley's book is based on some two hundred contemporary texts from a diverse range of authors, including Jesuit missionaries, Dutch merchants, and such well-known British writers as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe. He sets out to examine both English attitudes to the Far East, as revealed in these texts, and to consider the impact that the east had on English thinking during the "long seventeenth century."

Markley follows other recent writers, notably Kenneth Pomeranz, in overtly rejecting both Eurocentricity and Americocentricity when viewing the history of the West's relations with the Far East. He accepts the "new orthodoxy" that sees China as the world's most important economy from about 1500 to 1800, and notes how it served as a political, economic, and intellectual example to the West, as well as "a fantasy space for mercantile capitalism" (p. 4). He observes that the notion that China was somehow inferior to the West was entirely absent from seventeenth-century writing and can be dated precisely to Defoe's demonization of the country in 1719, the harbinger of the aggressive imperial acquisitiveness of the nineteenth century. Markley's substantial introduction, "British Literature of the Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasties," provides an overview of these themes.

Markley's first chapter, "The Far East, the East India Company, and the English Imagination," reviews travel writing of the early seventeenth century, focusing on the English East India Company, and especially on its relations with the Sultanate of Aceh. He demonstrates the fascination with the East in such works as John Fletcher's The Island Princess (1621), and rightly emphasizes the sophistication of the economic analyses of such writers as Thomas Mun and Peter Heylyn.
Chapter 2, "China and the Limits of Eurocentric History: Milton, the Jesuits, and the Jews of Kaifeng," notes the complexity of John Milton's attitude to the Jesuits and to China itself, which challenged his providential, republican view of the world. Markley's third chapter examines civility and European rivalry in Qing China, focusing on Jan Nieuhoff's descriptions of his visits to China in 1655-56, and notes how contemporaries believed (wrongly) that the code of civility provided common ground between upper-class Europeans and Chinese. In his fourth chapter, Markley examines John Dryden's play Amboyna (1672). It is true, as Markley states, that Amboyna was an important part of the English government's clumsy attempt to whip up anti-Dutch sentiment at the start of the third Dutch war in 1672, although its ostensible subject matter, a fifty-year-old massacre that happened to have taken place in the East Indies, was very much secondary to its primary purpose, the demonization of the enemy.

Two of Markley's chapters deal with the writings of Defoe. Chapter 5 considers the little known sequel to Robinson Crusoe, his Farther Adventures (published the same year, 1719) in the Far East, where Defoe asserts the inferiority of the Chinese to British Protestantism. Chapter 6 examines Defoe's part in developing the myth of the South Seas as an inexhaustible treasure house, particularly in his 1724 novel, A New Voyage Around the World. Here Markley also examines earlier sea voyages, notably those of John Narbrough and William Dampier, which became well publicized in their day and helped to perpetuate the same mentality of fantasy economics. The final chapter, "Gulliver, the Japanese, and the Fantasy of European Abjection," examines book 3 of Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift's comparatively neglected tale of Gulliver's experiences in Japan. As Markley (and Gulliver) rightly assert, Japanese technology, military prowess, and political and economic self-sufficiency under the sakoku principle demonstrate "the irrelevance of the assumptions, values, and logic on which the self-congratulatory rhetoric of Eurocentrism depends" (pp. 245-246).

This summary of Markley's chapters reveals both the book's main weakness and its greatest strength. Despite the author's claims in his introduction, this is really a collection of disparate essays on some very different works of literature; in that sense, it is not a unified narrative of English perceptions of the Far East in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. (Moreover, Markley's insistence on "English," rather than "British," hardly does justice to Dean Swift, an Irishman, or to Alexander Selkirk, the Scot who was the model for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, nor to the fact that the British Isles had a unified foreign policy from 1603 onwards.) On the other hand, the bringing together of such a lucid and often penetrating analysis of such diverse works in one book is eminently praiseworthy. As a collection of essays, this book works very well, and presents a series of convincing reinterpretations of some well-known, and less well-known, literary texts.

As one might expect from a professor of English Literature of Markley's distinction, his coverage of literary source material is comprehensive, but he is also strong on economic history. Markley places a fashionable emphasis on such themes as ecological crises and resource depletion, but neglects others, notably the key issue of military and (above all) naval technology, which increasingly dictated the terms of engagement in the Far East during the seventeenth century. However, one of the most significant criticisms that can be made of Markley's thesis is his failure conclusively to prove that the works of Milton, Nieuhoff, Defoe and the rest directly influenced the policies of European decision-makers in either politics or trade. (Even Defoe's important works on the South Seas, analyzed in chapter 6, were published after the formation of the South Sea Company, not before.) In any age, it is easy to prove that a book was published, but rather less easy to prove that it was read--and even if it were, that its ideas were accepted. To give just two examples, it would be difficult to think of any more intellectually curious and politically conscious individuals in seventeenth-century England than those great friends, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn; but the copious writings of both reveal little awareness of, or sympathy for, the Far East. When the ambassadors of the East Indian kingdom of Bantam came to London in 1682, Evelyn saw "the exotic guests" at dinner and observed how they were "much resembling in countenance to some sort of monkeys," as well as noting their amazement at the notion that individuals other than a king could own property (Evelyn's diary, June 19, 1682).[1]

This is an impressive book on a theme that has been neglected and viewed through the looking glass of comfortable western preconceptions for far too long. There is, however, an implicit danger in Markley's perfectly explicit rejection of historical interpretations founded upon Eurocentricity and Americocentricity (see, for instance, pp. 21-22). In their enthusiasm to abandon these undoubtedly narrow and distorted world views, authors like Markley may be too influenced by China's rapid transformation into the economic superpower of our times, just as writers in Imperial Britain or post-Cold War America were too quick to trumpet the (supposed) innate superiority of their value systems and economic might. Ultimately, a new Sinocentricity might become just as problematic an intellectual construct as those that it supersedes.

[1]. Many editions. See, for example, The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. John Bowle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 297-298.

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